Anyone else wondering if there’s a pattern starting here?
The Government proposes something. Clive creates BIG HEADLINES by suggesting that he’ll block it. There’s a bit of a brouhaha. The Government complains that the Senate shouldn’t block things because after all they have a mandate! (After all, the Liberals have always just waved legislation through – it’s not like they blocked the ETS or anything…)
A few days go by. Then it’s reported – with no big headlines – that Clive Palmer and his PUPpets have decided to let the thing go through. Sometimes, it’s reported that they’ve extracted some concession. Other times, they’ve either just changed their minds or else whatever concession they’ve extracted is not for the public eye.
Now I don’t mean to suggest by that there’s anything untoward in this. After all, it is possible that Clive Palmer just speaks without thinking, and after reflection, he remembers that he is a life member of the Queensland LNP, so really opposing policies he’s always supported just because he’s trying to win a few populist votes is not really a good long term policy. Or it could be that he just likes watching Tony’s face when it looks likely that the Government actually have to say please before it gets its own way.
Whatever, it seems that there are at least two examples of this.
We won’t allow the Carbon Tax repeal, unless it’s replaced by an Emissions Trading Scheme starting at zero. (Haven’t heard much about that lately.)
We won’t support the changes to the regulations on Financial Advice. (Oh, wait the government have promised us that they’ll strength the legislation in the next ninety days.)
There you go. Two things that’s the start of pattern.
All right, two isn’t much of a pattern, but I wanted to get in early. If I wait until it’s an actual pattern then everyone will see it. Like the pattern where Margie doesn’t accompany Abbott when he goes to a foreign country, including Canberra, which Liberals regard as an alien land.
Just like when some of the Liberals suggested that the Labor Party hadn’t delivered a surplus this century. It’s a pattern. The circumstances of the GFC were no excuse – if the Liberals had still been in power, we’d have still had surpluses. And an unemployment rate of “eleventy”, mind you, but things would have been good because we’d have had a surplus.
But that was under Peter “Figjam” Costello. Under Abbott, I’ve noticed a new pattern. Joe Hockey has never delivered a surplus.
With the commencement of the 44th Australian parliament, and the installation of Bronwyn Bishop to the Speaker’s chair, it is appropriate timing to look at the way that democracy in Australia has been subverted over the past two terms of government, how this subversion is likely to continue, and what may be done to address it.
The subversion to which I refer may most readily be summed up as the phenomenon of “mandate”, but in more practical terms is described as the disempowerment of individual politicians, and by extension of the people that they represent.
In 2013, there are two independent members in the House of Representatives. There are one representative each from the Greens, Country Liberal Party, Palmer United Party and Katter’s Australian Party. The rest of the 150 seats in Parliament are occupied either by Labor or the Coalition.
The 2010 Parliament was famously “hung” – Labor had sufficient votes on the floor to support it in forming a government and to guarantee supply, but every piece of legislation needed to be hard-fought and negotiated in order to reach approval. It is a testament to the goodwill of Labor and the negotiating skills of Julia Gillard and her frontbench that the 2010-2013 term of government was one of Australia’s most productive, passing bills at an unprecedented rate of one every two days of being in power, all despite being in a minority government. Every member of that Parliament had a voice that counted. It would take a single member from the Coalition crossing the floor to guarantee success in any piece of legislation; similarly, a single member of Labor voting with the Opposition would be sufficient to scuttle it.
In addition to this, a defining factor of Australian parliamentary democracy was thrown into stark highlight: any party, or even any member, could bring a piece of legislation to the floor with some hope of success.
The party in government during any term enjoys a number of privileges, in terms of resources, support of government departments, and direct hands on the reins. There are any number of areas in which a government has real power, and whereby a member of the government can make real change without immediate opposition. The current government intends to capitalise on these powers to establish its Direct Action environmental plan without needing to bring legislation to the contention of the parliament.
However, the bread and butter of government is legislation – the to-and-fro of debate on the floor, of proposals and amendments and eventual acceptance of new law. It is this law that shapes society and by which governments can seek to implement their vision for the country. There are limitations to the power of politicians without recourse to legislation through the parliament, and for good reason. A hallmark of the 2010-2013 Parliament was that the Coalition had about as much chance of defining legislation and getting it approved as did Labor, the party ostensibly in government. The opposition could have brought its own vision, in the form of legislative proposals, to the floor any time during that term of government.
But they did not.
Unless you count motions to suspend standing orders, as far as I can tell the Coalition brought a grand total of zero proposals to the parliament. If you do count those motions, the total rises to one. Seventy-two times.
This article is not specifically intended to criticise the Coalition, because there is fault on all sides, and it is supported – encouraged – by the design of the system. As long as Australia lives under a two-party political system, then politics will be about politicing, not governing. That said, the current Australian government, the Liberal-National Coalition, has made a virtue of the necessity that the government rules and the opposition is powerless.
The Coalition in 2013 has been accused of purveying a “right to rule” mentality. This is propped up by continual discussion of the “mandate” that Tony Abbott claims to implement his program of legislation. Indirectly, this is in complete agreement to the Coalition’s approach during the last term. Despite having the opportunity to be productive, to work with the government of the day on finding agreement on the big issues and bringing forward, arguing and winning the contest of ideas with proposals of their own, the Coalition approached opposition with the intent of being as obstructive as possible. Instead of acting in a bipartisan manner for the benefit of the people, the Coalition talked everything down, sought to block every proposal, and belittled every intent of the government. They came in like a wrecking ball.
The eye of the Coalition was not on governing during 2010-2013. Their eye was on government for 2013-2016.
Abbott himself said as much. “Oppositions oppose. That’s what they do.” This was the justification given for not coming up with their own policy platform, for not having a suite of nation-building proposals of their own. The argument was bandied about that revealing policies simply gives the government ammunition, allowing them to take your own un-implemented policies and absorb them into their own platform. Indeed, recent history has seen this happen. But 2010-2013 was special. Before the election period, there was plenty of time for the Coalition to place its stamp on the legislative agenda of the country. Arguably, doing so would have given them an electoral fillip as they could argue they were already governing by default. As it happened, this was not necessary – the alternative approach was effective in winning government. But the Coalition had almost an unprecedented opportunity to use the term of government for the Coalition’s vision of the good of the country – if the good of the country had been their primary aim.
So why do political parties want, so strongly, to gain the reins of power? If the Coalition is not driven by the chance to implement a legislative agenda, what is the primary driver? Why buy into the winner-takes-all mentality that says that only Government can propose the agenda? Why deliberately take your own chance at power off the table?
I suspect that a big part of the reason is that it’s so much more personally profitable to be in government.
The disparity between government and opposition in terms of pay and benefits is a strong motivator to do whatever is needed to move from opposition into government. With this motivation in mind, it’s a short step from working for the benefit of the people to working for your own interests. In opposition, the priority is to win at all costs. In government, the main game is to attack the opposition. Maintaining a stranglehold on power is a corrupting influence par excellence and we can see the effects in policies that debase democracy, that result in government by stealth, that reduce the influence of the opposition and minor parties. As an example, destroying unions is not, per se, an attack by the conservatives on the working man; it is a direct assault on the Labor party. While the government should be concentrating on serving the people of the country, it instead focuses on perpetuating its own rule through any means possible.
So what solutions can we propose?
The first and best thing we could do to improve our polity is to establish equality of pay. If it makes no difference to your personal reward whether you are an MP or a shadow MP, then the political contest can be personal and local. Winning your seat becomes the ultimate aim; whether your party wins government or not, the personal rewards for victory in your seat are the same. If this simple change were to be accomplished, every member elected to Parliament could truly have the same power to serve their constituency. A shadow MP might not have the apparatus of a Department behind them, but if we were to additionally put the some of the resources of government departments at their disposal , we might be a step closer to a real democracy.
Many have also pointed to the concept of “party politics” being at the root of democracy’s malaise. Perhaps best exemplified by Tony Abbott’s defense of Jaymes “Six point plan” Diaz (incidentally, Google search for ‘six point plan’ – people pay good money to have the top spot on Google!): “He might not understand the policy, but he will vote for it. He will vote for it.” Party politics mean that individual candidates are not able to faithfully represent their constituents. At best, a vote for a major party is a vote in support of a bunch of policies you agree with, a selection of policies you have no opinion on, and probably at least a few policies you vehemently disagree with. Labor’s policies on refugees arriving by boat would seem a case in point for many people who nevertheless brought themselves to vote Labor in 2013.
The problems with party politics are legion and deserving of a post in themselves. If voting as a bloc was banned, I suspect we would have a political conversation much more nuanced, much more open and potentially much more informative. The opinions of every senator would count – whether they were in government or not, whether they were in opposition or not, even if they were an independent. If every vote on the floor was effectively a conscience vote, we might possibly get closer to an overall representation of the country rather than pandering to the desires of a few swing electorates. It would be important – nay, necessary – for every member, and every senator, to have understanding of what was being proposed in legislation. If we could somehow ensure that votes were not held unless every senator could sign a form saying they understood the legislation to their own satisfaction, it would require proposed legislation to be well examined and well explained.
This is not the world we live in. We live in a black and white world, a two-party world, where the Greens fight to retain a 10% share of the vote and count themselves lucky, where independent members are courted for their vote and loathed and derided in private, and where legislation is decided by leaders and party rooms rather than by the majority rule of the people. We must work within the paradigm of government and opposition. The 2013-2016 term of government will provide less opportunities for the opposition of the day and the independent members to have a constructive voice. But more importantly than opportunity is vision, and so long as Labor operates on the Coalition’s preferred terms – that the government proposes the legislation, and the opposition opposes – and so long as reaching government is required not only to do good, but to personally profit, there can be no drive for change. So it is up to the Australian people to consider how we may resolve these conflicts of interest – because occasionally, eventually, the wishes of the people can have an influence on the policies of our leaders. But this will be a long fight, and possibly futile. The sad facts are that no government is ever likely to vote for an increase in the pay of the opposition.
“Good morning, today in the studio we have the Minister for Hire Education, Mr Christopher Whyne. Mr Whine in August last year, you said that you wouldn’t be putting a cap on University Places, but today, we hear that you are?”
“Good morning, well, a lot’s changed since August of last year.”
“We’re in Government.”
“What difference does that make?”
“Well, you can’t make changes from Opposition. Don’t be ridiculous, but now the big boys are back in charge, we can do lots of things we could do last year?”
“Oh, sorry, I meant adults.”
“So, what you’re saying is that we can’t rely on anything you promised in Opposition?”
“No, of course not. We just said that we had no plans to make changes in a number of areas and, of course, we had no plans. Good heavens, we didn’t even have policies on most areas, so how can you accuse us of changing our plans.”
“So, what about Labor’s targets to ensure more people from disadvantaged backgrounds gain access to University.”
“Well, that sounds a little bit like class warfare to me. If people like that want to go to universities, why don’t they start their own?”
“Aren’t universities for everyone?”
“Well, yes, but we do want to ensure that there’s no drop in quality.”
“What about the changes to amenities fees? Many of the regional universities are opposed to this.”
“What you need to understand is we have a mandate. We were elected to run this country and that means we’re in charge, and if people don’t like it, well, they can always vote against us and elect a government like Labor who were just beholden to the faceless men and didn’t listen to the community.”
“But surely a mandate only applies to the policies you took to the election.”
“Our policies were a stronger economy, better government, stopping the boats from appearing on the front page and Tony’s daughters are really hot. I think this comes under one of those.”
“So basically you’re telling me that you have a mandate for anything?”
“Not anything. Just things that are good.”
“Has your party ever done anything that wasn’t ‘good’?”
“Never. We’re awesome. We ran surpluses, and Labor caused a Global Financial Crisis!”
“On that, when do you think you’ll have the budget back in surplus.”
“Certainly, not next year. Probably in the budget where sell off Medibank Private, and the rest of Telstra after giving them a fantastic deal on the NBN.”
“Isn’t Telstra now part of the Future Fund?”
“We’re in the future, aren’t we?”
“I said, ‘thanks for your time’. That’s enough for today.”
“Tony Abbott’s election victory give us the chance to push for the repeal of laws stifling our right to free speech, which came under such sinister attack from Labor.”Andrew Bolt
“Or at least not to be offended about the things that matter to them, because almost all the sorts of people who like the legislation being deployed against Bolt would be horrified to think that those in the US who are offended by the burning of the American flag ought to be able to prosecute the burners for their offended sensibilities… The only kind of free speech worth anything is the kind that leads to speech that offends people.” Speech by James Allan
Did Scott demand: “Get this sh-t off?”
Hell, no. Here, instead, is the ABC’s official excuse for the shot, screened on The Chaser’s The Hamster Decides: “While strong in nature, the segment was consistent with the humour from the Chaser Team and in line with the target audience of The Hamster Decides. The graphic was clearly fake and absurd.”
Yes, the graphic was clearly fake. That’s not the issue. The issue is that it was obscene, humiliating and viciously abusive.
To that, the ABC has two evasive defences. First, “the segment was consistent with the humour from the Chaser Team”.
But if this Dog F—er “joke” was “consistent with” the humour the ABC expected from The Chaser, should it not explain why it knowingly hired the team to consistently broadcast such stuff?
Second, the ABC says the “joke” was “in line with the target audience of The Hamster Decides”. Andrew Bolt
I notice that there were a lot of derogatory comments about Sophie Mirabella on social media, some calling her “witch” and “bitch”. And I do understand how someone who denied the existence of the stolen generations and refused to stay while Kevin Rudd made the apology can excite strong passions. But it does trouble me that many of these people were the same ones who objected to Abbott, Mirabella and company standing in front of the “Ditch the Witch” signs.
In Victoria, our Premier, Dennis Nap-time relies on Geoff Shaw’s vote for his survival – Shaw, who has recently been charged with 24 offences relating to the misuse of his taxpayer funded car. The Labor Party is outraged that the Liberals are being kept in office by a “tainted” vote. Sound familiar? Of course, the Liberals argue that Shaw is entitled to due process and the presumption of innocence. Something I agree with. And believed in the case of Craig Thomson, Peter Slipper, Muhamed Haneef and David Hicks. Strange that it’s only recently that the Liberals have discovered this concept.
Consistency may not be easy to achieve, but it’s certainly something to aspire to. Andrew Bolt may make a living by being so outrageously inconsistent that it gets people talking. How can he seriously be arguing that “The Hamster Decides” needs to be censored because it was offensive while arguing that being told to correct his factual inaccuracies about “white” people claiming to be black is stifling his free speech? (It was “stifled” to the extent that he had the front page of the paper to complain.) Bolt may have a point when says that people are selective in their attitudes to what should be allowed said (not him, of course, the latte-sipping, chardonnay-sipping socialists), but where is his outrage that the commercial networks refused to show GetUp!’s ad?
But in the end, Bolt’s just a mouthpiece and doesn’t really matter. He’ll write what suits his paymaster. It’s the hypocrites that are now running the country that concern me.
We’ll be told that someone on the minimum wage has more than enough, but someone on $150,000 is “struggling”. We’ll be told that the surplus doesn’t matter because the economy needs a boost because Labor left it in bad shape. We’ll be told that low-interest rates are a sign of good management by the Government, or else we’ll be told that rising interest rates are a good thing because they’re a sign of increased activity. We’ll be told that Indonesia just won’t cooperate, but it’s no big deal because the number of boats arriving doesn’t matter now we have Temporary Protection Visas. We’ll be told that it doesn’t matter if Holden stops making cars here because it’s not a viable industry without Government subsidies, but we’ll go on subsidising mining, because without subsidies they may pack up and start mining in the middle of the Cayman Islands. We’ll be told that – in spite of rising unemployment – that there are plenty of jobs out there. And we’ll be told that the number of women in Cabinet has tripled when another couple are appointed, and it was all done on MERIT.
And the strangest thing of all, in spite of the election being a “referendum” on the Carbon Tax, we’ll be told that the Abbott Government have a mandate to do all sorts of other things, as though electing a Party gives them open slather, even for things barely mentioned in their election campaign.
I once observed that it’d benefit a lot of organizations if someone was paid to take the blame when things go wrong.
“We’ve overestimated/underestimated/overspent/missed the deadline/blah/blah/etc.”
“Oh, sorry, that was my fault.”
“Well, we’re in terrible trouble, what are you going to do about it?”
“Nothing. I’m not paid to solve problems – I’m just paid to take the blame, now I’ve done that the rest of you can work out what to do instead of spending all that time justifying yourselves.”
I think of this now, because I can’t help but feel we’re going to be spending a disproportionate amount of time talking about “blame” in the next year or so.
Reflection and working out what went wrong has its merits, but “blame” is something else altogether.
For example, I notice various letters in the papers blaming Bill Shorten for backing Gillard, for changing back to Rudd, for being a “faceless” man and for being too ambitious. (I still maintain that a Minister cannot be “one of Labor’s faceless men” no matter how much he wheels and deals; it’s an oxymoron.)
Whatever your views on Bill Shorten, I suspect that the more he’s blamed, the more he’ll seek to deflect blame, so while it may feel good to find a villain or a scapegoat, things are rarely one person’s fault.
However, I don’t want to concentrate on Labor’s soul-searching. My purpose here is to look to the future and to remind everyone that Abbott was elected to deal with the Labor Government’s perceived shortcomings.
I use the word “perceived” not to suggest that they had none, but because, clearly, no-one voted for Tony Abbott because of a problem that Labor had, but no-one was aware of.
For the past few years, Abbott has been an attack dog. Laying the blame, always, squarely at Labor’s door. Never mind that some of his complaints lacked any rational arguments to back them up.
Never mind that sometimes future events justified what Labor did, rather than what Liberals suggested. (“We’re spending too much stimulus money now, we need to save some for when we go into recession, which is inevitable!” became “We didn’t go into recession, so we didn’t need to spend any money at all.”)
Never mind the times – as with the Carbon Tax – where Labor were doing what the Liberals suggested. (“If you want to put a price on carbon, why not just do it with a simple tax?” Tony Abbott in 2009). He’s been relentless. And the temptation is to give him a taste of his own medicine. “Let’s make it hard for him. Let’s be negative about everything he does.”
Instead, let’s claim the high moral ground here. Let’s not – as some on social media have done – rejoice in Mirabella’s potential defeat using words like “bitch” and making nasty comments on her personal life.
Let’s not indulge in rumours about Abbott, which even if true, do not diminish his capacity as leader. After all, people objected to such things when the Jones, the Bolts, the Liberals trolls, the Limited Media of Murdoch, all did it.
Let’s not let such people get us on the ropes, where the head-kickers and the body punchers are at their best. Let’s instead hold Abbott to this one standard: “We don’t care who’s to blame, you were elected to fix it! If you can’t do that, you’d better step aside and let someone who can. After all, we have a contract.”
“Yeah but unemployment’s rising/there’s no surplus/we’re in recession because of Labor!!!”
“We don’t care who’s to blame, you were elected to fix it! What’s your answer?”
I suspect that it may be far more effective to do that than to let them deflect blame.